What are Hamilton County school board members' thoughts on the updated school facilities recommendations?

Hamilton County Board of Education member Jenny Hill discusses ideas about board procedures and monthly meetings with others during a Hamilton County Board of Education retreat Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Chattanooga State Community College in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Hill is one of the board's newly elected members, and she is representing District 6.
Hamilton County Board of Education member Jenny Hill discusses ideas about board procedures and monthly meetings with others during a Hamilton County Board of Education retreat Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Chattanooga State Community College in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Hill is one of the board's newly elected members, and she is representing District 6.

For more than a year, the Hamilton County Board of Education has been undergoing a process to create a 10-year facilities plan for the district's school buildings.

The board initially voted to spend nearly half a million dollars to assess the condition of the district's facilities and develop a strategic plan for capital projects and maintenance in December 2018.

A preliminary report, conducted by MGT Consulting Group and presented in July, identified more than $1.36 billion in capital needs across the district's 74 schools and recommended adding to 10 schools, building new facilities for three schools and closing 15 school buildings.

On Jan. 13, the board reviewed a different option, which would decrease the number of schools to be closed as well as reduce the sizes of some schools from what was suggested in the first report. It focuses on "maximizing efficiency and effectiveness" and proposes $869 million in renovations.

Ahead of this week's meetings, which include two community forums, private focus groups and a school board work session on Wednesday, what are school board members' thoughts on the process and the recommendations so far?

photo Hamilton County District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman during a work session before the school board meeting in the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, July 18, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

District 1: Rhonda Thurman

Rhonda Thurman has remained one of the facilities audit's strongest critics.

She voted against spending money to hire an outside firm to complete the audit, arguing that the district is already aware of its failing facilities and maintenance needs.

Now, Thurman remains disgruntled as the community has come out passionately against many of MGT's initial recommendations.

"I still think it was a waste of money," Thurman told the Times Free Press. "There are things we have to do like rezoning, but upsetting people over this is absolutely unnecessary. We don't have any money to do any of it."

Thurman emphasized that, as of now, the district has no plan for how it would fund a massive facilities project or how it would prioritize projects with any funding it does happen to receive.

"This is ridiculous, we don't have one penny to do one thing and we are talking about $850 million," she said.

photo Hamilton County District 2 School Board member Kathy Lennon is seen during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

District 2: Kathy Lennon

Kathy Lennon was one of several board members who talked with MGT representatives and gave them feedback and her own recommendations after the Jan. 13 work session.

One of those suggestions was to present the actual cost of each project proposed, such as moving Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts to a state-of-the-art facility on the current Brainerd High site or renovating Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, at this week's meetings.

That could help the community - especially at CSAS - understand the process and ease fears that have swelled since the school's future was slated as "to be determined [TBD]" in the last set of recommendations.

"I told MGT that I wanted them to come prepared at the community meeting[s] to be able to answer the questions of how much it costs to renovate the CSAS building," she said.

Lennon isn't sure what the future holds for CSAS, but she does feel CCA should stay on the northern side of the Tennessee River, where it has formed a strong community base. In all, she was encouraged by MGT's latest report.

"I still think it's good that we had MGT come in and do the study," she said. "I don't agree with all of their proposals of what they want to do yet, but I like the fact that they listened to the community and came back and made some changes the second go-around."

photo At center, Hamilton County School Board Chairman Joe Wingate opens up a meeting as School Board member Joe Smith and Hamilton County Commissioner Chip Baker listen Monday, January 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Hamilton County Board of Education met jointly with the Hamilton County Commissioners Monday night.

District 3: Joe Smith

Board member Joe Smith recognizes that many of the schools he represents will for the most part be unaffected by MGT's facilities recommendations.

Hixson High School could potentially see a new facility, but large-scale closings and rezoning aren't planned for District 3.

Smith originally voted against hiring MGT because he was concerned nothing would come of the audit and recommendations without a clear funding stream or buy-in from the Hamilton County Commission, but he does think the district is headed in the right direction.

"[MGT] came in and [they] don't have any agenda, they don't know the political environment here," Smith told the Times Free Press. "It feels like that's been a good thing because they aren't biased in any ways, they are just making recommendations on what they think makes the most sense."

What's important, Smith said, is that the community continues to provide feedback and share what it wants with the district.

" - I want to continue to hear what the community thinks and what they feel about the direction that's being recommended by MGT," he said.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Hamilton County School Board Member Tiffanie Robinson answers a question. Hamilton County United held a teachers town hall at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center discussing the funding of public education and increasing teacher pay. November 17, 2019

District 4: Tiffanie Robinson

Unlike Smith, many of the schools most drastically impacted by MGT's preliminary recommendations are schools in the urban core, represented by board members Tiffanie Robinson, Karitsa Mosley Jones and Jenny Hill.

Like Lennon, Robinson has heard a lot of uproar from the CSAS community, but overall, she's been encouraged by MGT's latest suggestions because of the changes it made after hearing from the community last December.

The piece missing from the conversation, though, Robinson told the Times Free Press, is how to fund a long-term facilities plan.

"Our next steps should be around funding sources personally, we've gotten the community very engaged and now I think we need to know what's feasible from our funding body," she said. "We need to think long term and to start to have those funding conversations."

photo Karitsa Mosley Jones

District 5: Karitsa Mosley Jones

Board member Jones, who has been concerned about previous recommendations to close schools in the Brainerd area including Brainerd High School and Dalewood Middle School, was also encouraged by the updated suggestions from MGT.

It was evident, she told the Times Free Press, that MGT representatives have been listening to feedback from Hamilton County residents.

However, she still has reservations and hopes students, teachers and families that could be affected will continue to speak out and share their opinions.

"I hope the community meetings are well attended and that people come out and are honest and [there is] concern about their suggestions," she said.

Mosley Jones also thinks many people have missed an important distinction throughout the process: despite what recommendations MGT comes up with, the school board will have the final say as to what happens to a particular school in Hamilton County, she said.

photo Hamilton County School Board member Jenny Hill addresses the adoption of Future Ready 2023 Thursday, September 20, 2018 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thursday was Hill's and Tucker McClendon's first meeting as school board members. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

District 6: Jenny Hill

Since the school board's annual retreat last fall, Hill has been adamant about the board digging in and developing a strategy for what happen after MGT presents its final set of recommendations in March. She is looking forward to the board laying groundwork for a clearer vision and incorporating more of the community.

"I am eager on Wednesday evening to discuss in greater detail the ways that we can implement some kind of citizen panel to help really formulate what the 10-year facilities plan should incorporate," Hill told the Times Free Press.

Like Mosley Jones, Hill wants the community to remain engaged in the process this week - something most board members have emphasized is important for their decision making.


- Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. at Tyner Academy, 6836 Tyner Road - Wednesday, Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. at Brown Middle School, 5716 TN-58, Harrison

"My hope is that the communities will all remain engaged, whether a change has been made that really pleases you or concerns you. I hope that people will continue to participate in the surveys and not unplug because their particular concern was alleviated, because our collective voices matter," she said.

Involving the community through general feedback or a citizen's panel could also help the board answer the looming question of funding a facilities plan, something Hill agrees with Robinson is of utmost importance at this point in the process.

"It is defeatist to think because we don't have the money, we shouldn't bother talking about it," Hill said. "I don't think we should just look to the county commission to figure this out, and I don't think we should just look to the schools. I do think public/private partnerships that look different than what we have done in the past is a good place to look."

photo This March 14, 2019, staff file photo shows Hamilton County District 8 school board member Tucker McClendon during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter

District 8: Tucker McClendon

Like many of his fellow board members, Tucker McClendon was also encouraged by MGT's response to feedback from the first round of community meetings - particularly updating the recommendations to keep a high school in the Brainerd community as well as multiple regional vocational education centers across the county.

cI think MGT took a considerable amount of community feedback and you can see that in their updated plan. Do I think the plan is perfect? No, but I do think that it is something that is a more palliative starting point than what we had in the past," he said.

McClendon told the Times Free Press that it will take significant investment to improve the district's facilities, something he blames on past neglect.

"I think we are at a point in Hamilton County where we are at a facilities crisis because of decades-long neglect of our school facilities," he said.

photo Hamilton County District 9 School Board member Steve Highlander is seen during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

District 9: Steve Highlander

Though Steve Highlander appreciates the analysis of the physical state of the district's buildings, he is concerned that MGT's recommendations are not financially feasible.

"Do I think there are a lot of great ideas? There truly are; I'm just concerned about the financial feasibility about it," he told the Times Free Press.

Highlander is doubtful the commission will be willing to increase the county's debt service to fund millions in school capital projects. He is also concerned about whether the board will vote on a full plan or pieces/projects individually presented by Superintendent Bryan Johnson's team.

Highlander, like the majority of the board members, hasn't presented any ideas for how the district could fund a 10-years facilities plan, but rather agrees that funding will be left up to what the commission is willing to fund.

District 7 board member and chairman Joe Wingate could not be reached for this story.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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